Jennifer Musselman: “Do not allow gossip and rumors”

I grew up very poor, and I’m passionate about working with people of means and helping them understand the importance of not just looking at a resume because some people start life with far more than others. Leaders need to be supporting all people — like the college student who can’t afford to do a non-paid internship […]

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I grew up very poor, and I’m passionate about working with people of means and helping them understand the importance of not just looking at a resume because some people start life with far more than others. Leaders need to be supporting all people — like the college student who can’t afford to do a non-paid internship and has to take a retail job in the summer. Meanwhile, her wealthier classmate, who can afford not to be paid for an internship, gets the first shot at a job right out of college. The idea that there’s a meritocracy, and people are where they are because of their talent, that’s not necessarily true. I tell my clients, “Look at resiliency, look at how the person handles adversity, not just whether they have a pedigree or a Stanford education.” Skills can be taught.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Musselman. Known affectionately as “the CEO therapist” by her clients from Netflix, Apple, LinkedIn, Glassdoor, Salesforce, Fast Company, and more, Jennifer Musselman is a psychotherapist and leadership coach in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Often compared to the character of Wendy Rhoades on “Billions” due to her straight-shooting but an empathetic approach, Musselman has a unique bond with her clients: She is a former corporate executive herself. As senior director of communications for MTV Networks/Nickelodeon Television, Musselman saw her workplace devolve into a culture of fear and toxicity — inspiring her to go back to school for a Master’s in clinical psychology, and to help executives navigate the complex intersection of work and home life. Musselman is currently completing her doctoral work in Change Management & Leadership at USC.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I began my career as a communications executive in the entertainment industry — and I loved it. When I started at Nickelodeon/MTV Networks, we valued being bold and irreverent, and that was reflected in our products and processes. And it worked! But over a decade, leadership changed, the entertainment landscape changed, and the corporate culture became one of fear: fear of losing the number-one position we’d held for so long. This fear permeated the company, and it became psychologically unsafe to “play,” which had previously led to so many innovative properties that were our hallmark. In turn, programs became reinventions of prior successes, in order to play it safe. Power struggles ensued; people and departments fiercely defended their worth and pointed fingers at each other for the declining ratings. The climate became about blame and deflection, not about collaboration.

Suffice to say that the workplace became more and more toxic, I was going into work in survival mode, going home feeling anxious, scared, and emotionally exhausted. But you know what they say about clouds and silver linings: This unhappiness helped propel me back to school, where I got my degree in clinical psychology, and into a career as a therapist to executives. So I’ve sort of come full circle. I’m now able to bring my own executive experience to bear as I connect with clients who are experiencing — or, unfortunately, sometimes helping to create — a toxic work environment. What people don’t realize is that the stressors and behaviors that manifest at work are also carried into the home life. So the ways I help my clients navigate their issues on the professional front also help them personally, and vice-versa.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The most interesting thing that I’ve discovered, and which has led to the most interesting work I do, is that oftentimes the behavior that shows up in the workplace is the same as what’s showing up at home. For example, what we psychologists call “emotional regulation issues” — better known as adult temper tantrums. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to all CEOs, but certainly to some. I’ve actually gone in and done psychological interventions in some cases. There’s a lack of self-awareness, a lack of ability to contain one’s emotions, and it’s the employees who suffer, of course. Unfortunately, the person displaying this behavior also takes it home; this how their partners and kids experience them. They’re creating a ‘misery loves company’ environment both in the workplace, where all the employees are unhappy and at home. So that has become a major focus of my work, helping clients understand that you can’t bifurcate your life into “work” and “home.”

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Well, as a therapist, any mistakes I make are really not that funny!

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

The reason I was attracted to this clientele was that I had been in the corporate world myself. I’ve worked with executives in a start-up situation. I find there to be a lot of similarities between CEOs in a successful start-up and people with drug addiction — they’re both novelty-seeking individuals, and they have a higher need for excitatory stimuli. The challenge is that they may have a lack of self-regulation. I’m attracted to people who are brilliant, challenging, and who may not come with a lot of self-awareness. I like the thrill of helping them to transform and gain more insight into regulating their emotions. That way they can become a true leader instead of someone who’s just dominating.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

The CEO is the visionary. Their values, their vision embody what the company is, and the company becomes an extension of how the CEO sees the business and the way to do that business. And when it’s done well, it’s amazing. But it also can be a negative attribute if the leader can’t inspire their employees to follow that vision. Sometimes these high-level executives get so caught in the weeds trying to ‘do’ that they don’t spend enough time reading or self-reflecting or asking questions of the people on the front lines. The truly successful CEO not only has the vision, but inspires everyone to follow it, and gives them the tools to do so.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

As the therapist to executives, the thing I most enjoy is seeing their vulnerable side. If a CEO is feeling “I don’t know what I’m doing” — they can’t say that to their board, their partners, or their employees. They feel this pressure to succeed, to make money, to make everything go smoothly. But there is no perfect route. What I love the most is that I can create a safe space for them to be honest with someone outside of themselves. To acknowledge, ‘I don’t have all the answers,’ knowing they won’t be judged, and don’t have to feel ashamed. They feel so responsible for making others feel stable and good, and I love helping them become more vulnerable and transparent, which then enables them to do the same with their employees. It emboldens them and allows them to create a safe space for others.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

You basically have the world on your shoulders in that role, because as the face of the company, you’re seen as the one who’s ultimately responsible for the success of the company — whether that means raising money, making unpopular decisions like lay-offs, having your executive team second-guess your choices, or dealing with employees who may not fully trust that you have their best interests at heart. If a sports team has a lousy season, the coach isn’t going to blame it on a player, they’re going to say, “I did a bad job coaching.” That’s how the world sees the CEO. It’s not just one worker trying to keep their home and family safe. You’ve got hundreds or thousands of employees depending on you, and board members who’ve invested millions in your company. That’s a big weight to carry.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?

To follow on to my previous answer, it’s easy to blame the CEO as a scapegoat for all the problems in a company. But I think the CEO and the executive team jointly carry the burden of leading the company. There can also be outside factors, like a pandemic, or cultural changes that are outside of a CEO’s control — but the leader has to adapt to those changes, and you can get a bad rap if you don’t do it perfectly.

Also, when employees don’t see a CEO sitting at his computer or strolling the aisles all day, they may not think the CEO is working as hard as everyone else. But the CEO’s job is not to be sitting in front of a computer from 9 to 5 (or more realistically, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.) — they need to be meeting others, reading, traveling. Most CEOs work very hard, even if it’s not always visible to every employee.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Oh, the challenges are plentiful! For one thing, only recently has the government stepped in to say you have to have at least one woman on your board if you’re a publicly-traded company. That’s an easy demonstration of the challenges of women in leadership and the lack of diversity in leadership.

Within a company, a woman who’s a straight shooter, a let’s-get-the-work-done personality, is often seen as a bully or mean girl. On the other hand, a woman with a warm and fuzzy personality, or who is seen as someone who cares too much about other women — I’m going to be frank, these women don’t usually make it into the upper echelons because they’re perceived as insecure.

But the hardest thing for women is knowing how to adjust or adapt to a patriarchal system. For instance, one of the biggest issues for female founders in trying to get funding is that men often don’t get what women are trying to pitch. They’re not going to understand the need for a flexible tampon. The majority of investors are men, and as a woman, you have to do even more due diligence in showing why this is a viable opportunity — more than a man, who just walks in the door with more credibility to investors. If investors are not accustomed to seeing women in that role, a woman needs to be even more armed and prepared with facts and data to accomplish her goals.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I had to learn my value. Because when I started doing this work, I didn’t have a vision, I just felt compelled to do it. I believe in listening to the spirit inside of you — some call it God, I call it ‘the universe’ — and I didn’t have a choice. I felt it was my responsibility to do something that felt meaningful.

But it’s not tangible, what I do. I’m not building a product, like something you can buy off the shelf at Walmart, or a piece of art; I’m not toting a script for a television show. The surprising thing was recognizing how important a role I play in the harmony of a person’s life. I didn’t realize how much of an impact I could have. To hear the validation from them is really gratifying. I had to learn I’m a critical part of their journey to success — including when they fail.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

I think you should avoid being an executive if you’re neurotic!

Research shows that adaptability — being flexible and adaptive to a changing environment — is the number-one quality a successful leader has to have. A successful leader is someone who can motivate, who can create a psychologically safe environment, who can shut up and let others with expertise lead and inform. They should be more listeners than talkers; then when they speak, they speak with impact because they have done a lot of listening.

A CEO also needs to be a strategic risk-taker. The number-one mistake is leading from fear. I’ve seen some CEOs who have come from a legal or financial background, and they require concrete data to make any decision because they’re so afraid of mistakes. CEOs who don’t have that strategic risk-taking bone, who have to double-check everything nine times, can hold up the entire company or even miss an opportunity — especially if there’s a competitor in the space — because they’re so afraid.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

I’d say the most important thing is to create psychological safety: Make your team feel safe to make silly suggestions. Provide a generative learning environment — in which people generate new knowledge by building on what they already know — by supporting curiosity and exploration. An environment where people are applauded for coming up with new ideas, even if they’re off the wall, or don’t always work.

Do not allow gossip and rumors. If there’s anything going on in the company that might create gossip, get ahead of it, and communicate right away. Circulate regularly; if you find out gossip is happening, confront it and address it.

Encourage people to have healthy conflict — often that’s where innovation is born! If employees are having issues between them, encourage them to do everything they can to work it out among themselves before they take it to the top.

And finally, create the kind of example and environment that helps women employees respect you as a businessperson, not just because you’re a woman.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

On the personal front, I grew up in Iowa in a family of low socioeconomic status. I was part of a Big Sister/Little Sister program, and my Big Sister and her husband were the first people who started talking to me about college, and what I was going to do when I got to college. They gave me that hope and vision for my future. If people don’t have that support and encouragement in childhood, not everyone can overcome that. I’ve had good mentors and women bosses at Nickelodeon and Fox News, but I never would have landed in those places except for my Big Sister and her husband acknowledging college is important.

On the professional front, I had a great psychology mentor while I was in school, but I haven’t found that person in my current work-life because no one is doing exactly what I’m doing. I’m kind of pioneering it by myself!

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

This may not be the type of answer you expected, but I help the individual in dealing with their day-to-day stressors, anxieties, depression, and relationships. By doing that, I help the collective relationship, at work and at home. I help people become more secure in who they are and the impact they have.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

There’s really just one major thing I wish someone had told me much earlier in my career. When I was in corporate America, coming up the ranks, if I had an opinion, I would try to force it onto the group. Obviously, that did not go over well. But I did not have a good teacher in business showing me how to approach things. I was just told, “You need to work on your approach.” No one told me how.

So I did a deep dive, and from that my second career was born. As I became a therapist, I learned how to motivate people, inspire them, rather than being more direct or hitting them over the head with ‘This is what you should do.’ It should be more of a collaborative evolution than my-way-or-the-highway. I wish someone would have helped me learn how to do that earlier in my career. How to serve up the message in a way that it can land to be heard. (We call that “the soft serve.”) Motivating, not being critical. Planting seeds that may not be acknowledged the first time — or the second or third, so you have to keep planting them. It turns out that as you’re coming into leadership, emotional intelligence is more important than the skills of your particular business.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I grew up very poor, and I’m passionate about working with people of means and helping them understand the importance of not just looking at a resume because some people start life with far more than others. Leaders need to be supporting all people — like the college student who can’t afford to do a non-paid internship and has to take a retail job in the summer. Meanwhile, her wealthier classmate, who can afford not to be paid for an internship, gets the first shot at a job right out of college. The idea that there’s a meritocracy, and people are where they are because of their talent, that’s not necessarily true. I tell my clients, “Look at resiliency, look at how the person handles adversity, not just whether they have a pedigree or a Stanford education.” Skills can be taught.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

These have evolved as I’ve gotten older. In my 20s and 30s, my favorite quote was:

“There are those who get less because they settled for it.” — Author unknown. As I said before, I had to learn my value!

Now in my 40s, I have two that mean a great deal to me:

“The root of suffering is attachment.” — Buddha

This reminds me to stay present and unattached to a particular outcome; to remain curious and explore, for that’s where authentic creation and connection are born, personally and professionally.

“Despair is suffering without meaning.” — Viktor Frankl

Others have shortened this to “Despair = suffering — meaning,” which makes it even easier to grab hold of. Though we all try to avoid suffering (see the Buddha quote above), it’s inevitable sometimes. The point is to find the meaning in it: Failure and pain can be rich with information and healing. They can even inspire greatness.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Richard Branson. Because he is a rogue entrepreneur who has high novelty-seeking personality traits but is a genius in his creativity — and that is exciting to me. He’s also, by all accounts, super compassionate and generous, as we saw on “Shark Tank,” when he didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings when he rejected them. That combination of genius and empathy is pretty rare.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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